Where Eagles Dare (1968) chronicles an audacious World War II mission to rescue a captured American general: Attack (1956) — which also takes place in WWII — is the story of a US soldier, fighting the enemy, as well as incompetence within his own army.
Where Eagles Dare is a ‘roller coaster’ ride of a film; we set off with the team on their dangerous mission, and witness them overcome one setback after another. The film’s comic book treatment of warfare feels highly packaged, and sanitised. This is all about the action and stunts, instead of presenting a ‘true’ story about the brutality of war.
Attack is a different kind of war movie; it uses the genre to make an intellectual and emotional attack on corruption and incompetence within the American system. Lieutenant Joe Costa, not only faces the Nazis, but a commanding officer who has no idea what he’s doing — the officer was not promoted on merit, but as a favour.
Major John Smith, who leads the Allied team, in Where Eagles Dare, is: a superb commander, strategic thinker, bluffer, fearless risk-taker, and is able to keep his cool. In short, he’s ‘hero material’, the kind of man you want fighting on your team.
Lieutenant Costa, in Attack, is also the kind of man you want on your side. He’s brave, honest, modest, popular with the men, and knows how to fight the enemy — but, unlike Smith, he can’t hide his emotions.
Treachery is a core element of both these stories: the enemy within. In Where Eagles Dare the traitors are embedded with the team, which makes it hard to trust anyone — the most important traitor turns out to be a senior officer, Colonel Turner. The mission’s objective is a decoy — the real objective is to engineer a situation that will expose the traitors. The stakes are high, because the traitors are murdering the loyal team members.
The cowardly Captain Cooney, in Attack, isn’t working for the enemy, but his incompetence is producing terrible consequences: the avoidable death of men under his command. He is willing to let them die to save his own skin, and even if he wanted to do good by them he couldn’t, because he is incapable of thinking rationally — and, as a result, his men despise him. Why was Cooney promoted? Lieutenant Colonel Bartlett is using the promotion as a favour, to get business from Cooney after the war.
Both heroes have a faithful colleague who’s able to back them up. In Attack, Lieutenant Harold Woodruff attempts to be the voice of reason, hoping to find a solution that suits everyone (e.g.: transferring Cooney behind the frontline, to an admin role) — but this approach is doomed to fail, because Colonel Bartlett will always veto it.
In the end, Lieutenant Costa, in Attack, dies (from a wound incurred while fighting enemy tanks), his colleague Woodruff — knowing that nothing else will end Cooney’s incompetence, and more pointless deaths — shoots the Captain. In Where Eagles Dare, Major Smith has Lieutenant Schaffer, who is specially picked because he’s an American — outside of the British organisation, so he can be trusted. A common theme for heroes working in a group is that, however capable, they need a trusted person to ‘keep their back’.
Where Eagles Dare is an adventure romp where realism is sacrificed for comic book excitement. Attack, has the similar ‘Hollywood’ type action scenes (on a lesser scale), with a psychological dimension that explores: class, power, and relationships. The inclusion of an incompetent US Army Captain feels almost subversive in a 1950’s American film — it’s much more in keeping with the Vietnam War era, the 1960s and 1970s. Where Eagles Dare uses the revelation of treachery as a surprising, but mainstream, narrative plot reversal. Attack uses the war genre as an intellectual swipe against the ‘establishment’.
The war genre has an obvious crossover with action films — explosions, and stunts, etc — but it’s also a genre that lends itself to exposing incompetence, because the stakes in war are so high.
As a mainstream ‘fun ride’ — which does not provoke deep reflection about the Second World War, Where Eagles Dare is a celebration of Major Smith’s audacity, and the grit of Lieutenant Schaffer. It threatens to turn into a warning at the end — when the treacherous Colonel Turner briefly gains the upper hand — but, this is nothing more than a smart plot twist that’s quickly reversed. Attack is mostly a warning about bad leadership and corruption, but after the hero dies, his ‘backup’ takes on the mantle, to do what must be done — it becomes a celebration of common sense, and decency, triumphing over criminal self-interest, and stupidity.